HC Deb 22 December 1954 vol 535 cc2799-809

2.1 p.m.

Mr. Airey Neave (Abingdon)

Noise from aircraft is a source of annoyance in many parts of the country, but I think the very real inconvenience it can cause is usually mixed with the admiration we all have for the way in which the Royal Air Force carries out its duties. Certainly, in the district of Abingdon, the question of noise in which I am grateful to be able to discuss, there is a general feeling of respect for the Royal Air Force.

In view of the fact that very real disturbance is caused by the noise of aircraft of Transport Command stationed at Abingdon I hope that nothing I say today, and nothing which will in future be said about this matter, will do anything to endanger good relations between the civil population and the Royal Air Force. I am sure that that is one of the things we should preserve.

As the Under-Secretary of State for Air well knows, it is a very difficult matter to mitigate the noise from Service aircraft, particularly from four-engined Service aircraft. My hon. Friend will agree that this is a matter in which emotion should be tempered with reason and perhaps it should not be dealt with purely from the point of view of those who feel strongly about it—as, indeed, they must—because, clearly, there is very grave necessity for safe training for our airmen.

The question is: can it be mitigated? There have been complaints for some time from Abingdon. For some months past people have complained to me and I have been in correspondence with my hon. Friend. They have complained that their rest at night has been disturbed and their daily lives have been subjected to considerable noise and inconvenience. When in hospital or school they have been annoyed by aircraft flying low over the roofs. This happens in an area where the population has more or less doubled in the last few years—an area within about 6,000 yards radius from Abingdon aerodrome.

The immediate cause is the fact that on this important aerodrome four-engined aircraft—mainly Hastings—are stationed and, in addition to the ordinary operational duties of Transport Command, they carry out what is known as continuation training. It is necessary for them to make circuits of the aerodrome. One of the main complaints about the way in which training is carried out is that often it is below the regulation altitude for making a circuit of the aerodrome, which, I understand, is 500 feet. This matter was raised by my predecessor the noble Lord, Lord Glyn. At that time York aircraft, which, I understand, are particularly noisy, were stationed at the aerodrome.

Eventually, the Yorks were replaced by Hastings but, as a result of correspondence I have had with my hon. Friend, I have learned that two Yorks are being retained for training purposes. They are noisy aircraft and I know that my hon. Friend would seriously consider removing them if he were not absolutely sure that they were essential for training. I should like to hear his comment on that, because it is said in the district that the existence of these two York aircraft there adds greatly to the noise which people suffer.

The next thing that happened in regard to the series of protests and complaints about noise and low flying was that when the main runway of the aerodrome was under repair during the summer months a great deal more noise was occasioned because a shorter runway was in use. Prominent in bringing this matter to the attention of the Secretary of State for Air was the noble Lord, Lord Lucas of Chilworth, who has bought a house on the edge of the airfield. I, too, have received petitions and letters which seem to reveal a serious state of affairs. People complain that loss of sleep has brought them to a nervous state.

A great deal of this is already known to my hon. Friend and in the short time available I will not attempt to detail them because my hon. Friend knows of them already. I know that he is entirely sympathetic and fully realises that there is genuine cause for complaint. The problem he and all of us have to face is whether, in the national interest of defence and the necessity for continuation training, my hon. Friend can do anything to alleviate the problem.

The two debates in which Lard Lucas spoke in another place resulted in a reply from the Secretary of State for Air in which he said it was not possible to restrict the training. But, during the time the main runway was under repair, he cut down the night flying to a certain extent. I wish to ask what is now the position when the main runway is back in operation and whether, as it were, we have now gone back to the status quo? The Secretary of State for Air did say that if anything further could be done to mitigate the trouble without inflicting hardship he would do it. I take it that he and my hon. Friend will keep the matter continuously under review.

The debates in another place had one feature in that attacks were made by Lord Lucas of Chilworth on the attitude of the Royal Air Force and the Department to the feelings of local people on this matter. He suggested that they were showing indifference to the inconvenience which was being suffered. That has not been my experience. I certainly do not associate myself with any such criticism, either of the Royal Air Force, or the Air Ministry in this matter. I am fully well aware that they are doing their best to alleviate what undoubtedly is a nuisance.

The Station Commander at Abingdon has behaved throughout this very considerable controversy in the district with common sense and tact. My hon. Friend has been to Abingdon to see what is going on there and I know that he is fully aware of the position. But the problem remains and, obviously, it will need continuous consideration, at least while it is necessary to use this aerodrome for four-engined transport aircraft.

With Lord Lucas, I attended a public meeting in November as a result of which I decided to raise the matter further in this House. On hearing what people had to say, there was no doubt at all that while they were not unmindful of the debt which they owed to the R.A.F. for its services to the nation in the last war, they felt that something could be done in regard to rearranging this training so that they did not suffer quite so much noise at night.

As to particular complaints, one to which I have already referred and of which I ask my hon. Friend to take particular notice is one on which local councils have written to me. It is that the circuits of the aerodrome which are made during night flying, and indeed by day, for the purposes of training are sometimes made at a lower altitude than 500 feet. If that is so, it calls for an inquiry. I know that it is not possible to be always there to control these things, but I hope that my hon. Friend will indicate that the strictest flying discipline is maintained in the locality, so that the public can be reassured on this matter.

The second complaint, of course, is of the actual noise that is made by aircraft flying low, as they must do when taking-off or landing and when they need to make authorised low altitude flights on a circuit of the aerodrome. I realise that flying will begin later during the summer, but would it not be possible during the course of the year to ensure that flying is done at reasonable hours so that it does not interfere with the sleep of those who have to go out early in the morning? A large majority of those who are living in the area are workers from industrialised Oxford. If it were possible to stop flying at midnight, or something like that, I am sure that it would be very much appreciated.

Three allegations were made by Lord Lucas of Chilworth during the course of the two debates which have been held in another place on this subject. I mention them because I have no special knowledge of aircraft and I am not able to say what the proper answer is. Indeed, the allegations were denied by the noble Lord the Secretary of State for Air during those discussions. The allegations, however, are sufficiently disturbing to the public, who are my constituents in this case, and indeed to others outside Abingdon who may read them, as to require an answer and a reassurance that there is no danger to civilians in the neighbourhood of this aerodrome.

Lord Lucas said, first, that the aerodrome is "unsuitable," In that connection, is it impossible to find an alternative satellite aerodrome in the district from which some of this training could be done? The noble Lord said that it was "unsuitable" and I take it, by implication, that it was not safe. He said that blind flying training was done with a simulated engine failure on take-off which, also, was not safe. The implication there was that the pilot could not see what he was doing and did not know his height. Finally, he said that York and Hastings aircraft, which are the aircraft actually stationed at this aerodrome, are dangerous and obsolete. That is a very serious thing to say. It was denied by the Secretary of State for Air, but since a large number of people must have read that statement I think that it is very necessary that the Under Secretary should say something about it to reassure us.

This problem of Abingdon is a difficult one, and it is realised to be so. The local people are suffering a genuine grievance in that while they may have found the noise of our 'bombers going over to attack the enemy during the war very comforting, they now find that they are very often kept awake at night, and some people are affected by it both physically and nervously.

There is one matter which does not actually concern my hon. Friend's Department and that is that the proposal to erect new houses in the district should be the subject of discussion with the planning authority. The point made in another place by my predecessor, Lord Glyn, that in future the Air Ministry should discuss with planning authorities the fixing of sites for aerodromes, seems to me a matter of great importance. Although it may be said that this aerodrome was already there at Abingdon before the houses were built, that is not the point. The point is that this is an aerodrome at which heavy four-engined aircraft, which cause a great deal of noise, are being used.

I would ask my hon. Friend to watch the whole of this matter, particularly flying discipline, to tell us, if he can, what is the future with regard to the aerodrome and whether it is possible to indicate what type of aircraft are likely to be stationed there in the future. I would also ask that, having regard to the very considerable population which surrounds the aerodrome, he should try at the earliest possible moment one of the other alternatives which have been suggested. I hope, also, that he will work towards some compromise in arranging a flying programme which would allow people to rest after their labours in the day in Oxford or in some part of my constituency and, at the same time, would meet the essential flying needs of the R.A.F. and of our defence programme.

2.14 p.m.

The Under-Secretary of State for Air (Mr. George Ward)

My noble Friend the Secretary of State for Air and I have personally examined very carefully the complaints of noise from aircraft stationed at the R.A.F. Station, Abingdon. Our examination has shown that there are three main problems which have been touched upon by my hon. Friend the Member for Abingdon (Mr. Neave). The first is whether the R.A.F. can stop flying at Abingdon altogether. The second is the question whether, if we cannot stop flying, we could move other squadrons to Abingdon which would cause less disturbance to local inhabitants than the present squadrons do. The third is whether, if we can do neither of these things, there is any more we can do to lessen the disturbance of which my hon. Friend's constituents complain.

On the first point, we have no facilities available elsewhere which could be used by the squadrons which are at present based at Abingdon. If we were to stop using Abingdon as an airfield we should be faced with very considerable expenditure in creating new facilities elsewhere. While I am on this point, it might be convenient to reply to one of the points which were raised by my hon. Friend—that relating to the planning of housing development. I would remind my hon. Friend that Abingdon has been an airfield since 1932 and represents at today's prices a capital investment of about£6 million of the taxpayers' money.

On the second point of whether we could replace the existing squadrons at Abingdon with squadrons which would cause less disturbance, it is very difficult to assess accurately the noise factor of different types of aircraft. We know from complaints which we have received in the past that some types of aircraft are disliked by the population more than others, and it is true to say that, on the whole, jet aircraft are disliked more than piston-engined aircraft. The Hastings and Yorks are, of course, piston-engined. The number of take-offs and landings, and especially night flying, affect the problem when one is trying to assess the amount of disturbance caused. However, I am satisfied, after studying this matter quite carefully, that there are no flying uses to which we could put Abingdon without causing as much, if not greater, disturbance to the people living near the station.

Ever since Abingdon became a Transport Command station, in 1946, we have been very careful to reduce disturbance to the local population as much as we possibly could, and over the last three years or so there have been fewer movements at the station because two of the squadrons now there are employed on doing long range work and the aircraft are often away for several days at a time. The movements in 1952 were 18,135 by day and 12,543 by night. In 1954, they will have dropped to 17,650 by day and 6,850 by night—reductions of 3 per cent. and 45 per cent. by day and night respectively.

We are, therefore, left with only the third possibility, whether there is anything we can do to reduce the noise from the aircraft at present based on Abingdon. Abingdon has been for some years, and still is, one of the main Transport Command airfields. It is used by squadrons equipped with four-engined Hastings for normal operational work and for parachute training. The pilots in these machines, in addition to their normal operations have, as my hon. Friend has already said, to carry out what is known as continuation training, and it is this training which has been the particular cause of complaints which we have received in recent weeks.

I can assure my hon. Friend that this training is absolutely essential to ensure a high degree of competence by each pilot to deal successfully with an emergency, should it arise, in the course of normal operational flights. Unless the pilot goes through a certain programme of specific training every month, he is not regarded as qualified to carry passengers and to fly passenger aircraft. The safety of the passengers, of the aircraft and, indeed, of the people on the ground all depend on this continuation training, and I am very glad to say—touching wood, of which this Box is, fortunately, made—that no passenger has been killed in a Transport Command aircraft since July, 1948.

If we cut down this training to reduce disturbance we should be taking a quite unjustified risk with lives and materials. These precautions are not peculiar to transport aircraft, but similar continuation training is carried out at all operational airfields. To accept a lower standard of training at one would inevitably lead to a lowering of safety standards throughout the Royal Air Force. I can say at once that we have no intention whatever of lowering our safety standards in this way, but I assure my hon. Friend that we shall, as my noble Friend said in another place last week, look at the matter again, and we shall carry out the necessary training to maintain these standards in such a way as to cause the least possible diturbance to the civil population.

In that connection, we shall give special consideration to the hours when night flying is carried out during the summer months. In the winter months, when we get the long nights, the problem is not so much one of the number of hours of darkness available for training as it is the number of nights on which there is suitable weather. In the summer, naturally, we get better weather, though the nights are very much shorter.

My hon. Friend mentioned the period from 22nd August to 22nd November when one runway was out of action under repair. It is quite true that during that period we did have to accept some dislocation of the programme. But that was exceptional and we resumed normal flying as soon as we possibly could because of the vital importance of the training. I should not like it to be thought that because we did accept some dislocation when this runway was out of action we could do it in the normal course of events.

We do try to finish night flying as early as possible, but, unfortunately, the weather is not often on our side. Bad weather often restricts the number of nights on which flying can be done. As the continuation training programme must be completed each month we have, unfortunately, to fly later at night if the number of nights suitable for flying is fewer than we need. But, on the other hand, this means that there are more nights entirely free from flying. So, in November last at Abingdon, they were able to fly on 23 days but only on 14 nights. Nevertheless, on only one night did flying continue after 11.45 p.m. and only on five nights after 10.30.

My hon. Friend put several points about the continuation training and he spoke about the low flying which it is alleged takes place below the 600 feet level. The regulations are quite specific on this point, and this continuation training is never carried out below 600 feet. I am sure, however, that my hon. Friend will realise that it is not easy even for a qualified pilot to judge from the ground the difference between 600 feet and something a little lower, especially at night. I would ask him to accept that this flying is not carried out below 600 feet, but that does not mean to say that if we ever found a pilot carrying out training below 600 feet in contravention of the regulations we should not immediately take very severe disciplinary action against him.

On the safety point, I can assure my hon. Friend and his constituents that there is no danger whatever attached to these continuation exercises. Where instrument take-offs and landings are practised there is always a safety pilot sitting alongside the other pilot with dual controls. Never is more than one engine out of four cut off to simulate engine failure on take-off. These are very necessary exercises, and, of course, these low approaches which have to be done are very necessary, because if the weather does deteriorate badly in a normal operational flight the pilot must know how to make a low approach below cloud level in order to get his valuable aircraft and crew down. Finally, of course, none of these exercises is carried out with a heavily loaded aircraft. It is always lightly loaded.

As to the point about aircraft being dangerous and obsolete, I can assure my hon. Friend that the Hastings is neither, and that I propose to take off in one next Tuesday and shall fly round the Middle East in it with the greatest confidence. On the question of the York aircraft, there are only two of them now. They are noisy, but they are away from Abingdon much of the time, they are doing an essential job there, and it would be extremely inconvenient if we had to move them elsewhere.

I am grateful to my hon. Friend for the moderate and constructive way in which he has approached this problem, particularly for the tribute he paid to the Station Commander at Abingdon, which I would like to endorse. I am also grateful to him for trying to get this problem back on to a reasonable basis, and away from that on which it has been for too long in recent weeks in another place. We do not pretend that there is no problem here. We are very conscious of the effect of aircraft noise on the civil population, particularly on the very old, the very young and the sick. As I have shown, in this case, as in every other which comes to our attention, we do our level best to improve the situation as far as we can. Abingdon is by no means an isolated case. We get these complaints from all over the country.

I hope my hon. Friend will forgive me if I say that I honestly do not feel that the position at Abingdon is as serious as has been made out in some quarters. Indeed, I would like to read part of a letter which I have received from one of his constituents—I have it here if he wants to see it: I have read in the local paper with much interest and disgust the complaint about night and low flying from the R.A.F. Station, Abingdon. I have lived in Abingdon now for over 25 years, at present I live within½mile of the station and I can assure you that the night flying does not worry me much. I am a working man. My job as a bus driver is all shift work rising at 4.30 a.m. two weeks out of three, so if anybody need complain I think it's me, but I say 'Carry on with the flying.' Whilst writing this letter night flying is in progress, and the aircraft are not taking off every 8 minutes, but 2 in half an hour. If night flying by the R.A.F. at Abingdon is to be cut or stopped just to suit some of the public the Air Ministry may as well stop the flying from Heathrow Airport, which has a far greater built-up area than Abingdon. This letter shows that there are some people there who do not regard this as a very serious problem.

If this small and densely populated country is to have an adequate air defence, some inconvenience is bound to be caused to the civilian public, especially when they live near an airfield. The nearer they live to an airfield, the more disturbance they are bound to suffer. I want to repeat the assurance which my noble Friend gave in another place last week, that we really study these problems and do not act carelessly or in bad faith or in neglect of the feelings of the civil population.